Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Feminism

Colette

YEAR: 2018
DIRECTOR: Wash Westmoreland
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This movie is rewatchable. It’s beautiful and funny and interesting, and I definitely want to watch it again!
✔️ It’s easily sex positive. There are feminist issues, certainly, but all the characters have a level of sexual freedom and acceptance of each other’s needs that is admirable and not always present in relationships, even today.
✔️ It also has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Colette and Missy talk a lot about subjects that don’t involve men, as do Colette and the other women she meets in the Paris salon scene, who are handily introduced to her when she meets them!
✔️ I would also fuck the cast without much hesitation. I have carried a torch for Dominic West since The Wire, which even a dodgy goatee and a dodgier personality can’t entirely extinguish, but Keira Knightley is the star. Colette is witty and intelligent, and Knightley gives her a spark that is frankly irresistible!
❌ But narrowly missing a 5/5 score, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Hot as they may look, I’m not gay so the lesbian love scenes didn’t inspire me beyond wanting hot sex in general, and the dress up scenes with Dominic West were definitely on the creepy end of the hot-or-not scale…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £1.99, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Colette, showing a determined looking Keira Knightley wearing a great hat!

Today’s movie was one that I hadn’t seen before this week, and I watched it in the most wonderfully indulgent style – sat on an enormous, ridiculously comfy sofa, surrounded by cheesy deliciousness, wine and good friends. It was perfect! And I was so happy to watch it with these particular friends as Exposing 40 and Haiku are such interesting people to talk to about, well, almost anything, but especially about marriage and different types of relationships – pertinent topics when watching Colette.

Colette tells the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), a young woman from the French countryside who marries a celebrity of sorts from Paris. Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy, is a vibrant member of the Parisian salon scene and is famous for writing stories and reviews…very few of which he actually writes, delegating that part to his ‘factory.’ When Willy’s extravagant lifestyle and infidelities catch up with him, he persuades Colette to write stories for him to increase his output and, therefore, his income. To Willy’s surprise, Colette’s novels about a young girl called Claudine’s sexual and romantic adventures become wildly successful, creating a social phenomenon, but Colette receives none of the credit. They were written by Willy after all. Frustrated and held back by Willy, Colette rebels, learns to become a mime and leaves Willy for Missy, a genderqueer Marquis who shows Colette that women don’t need to be wives or feminine to be accepted by society.

Image from Colette showing Colette writing

The true story of Colette and the issue of marital plagiarism is such an interesting one. The real woman was clearly a genius – a future Nobel prize nominee and author of many best-selling novels after divorcing Willy – but Willy was not wrong when he claimed that novels written by women are less successful as they were deemed to be harder to publish and harder to sell. It’s why Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot rather than her own name in the 1800s and why, even in the 20th century, JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials rather than her obviously feminine real name. And by the time Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, ‘Willy’ was a brand, as he claimed. His use of ghost-writers was well known within the industry and ‘Willy’ was already rumoured to be more than just that one man. Why risk their main source of income by rocking the boat and confirming what was already suspected anyway?

But, to me, these are simply excuses. And misogynist ones at that! Once the brand was established and once the character, Claudine, had built a diehard fan base, why couldn’t they come clean? In a society where women had so few opportunities to succeed creatively, why couldn’t they take that risk now? Except that, of course, revealing who had actually written his greatest works would discredit Willy. Without her novels, he would be unsuccessful and broke. He would have nothing.

And the power was all on his side and he had no desire to change that. Unless Willy himself gave credit to Colette, who would believe her? Although he does end up asking for them to be destroyed, just in case, Willy is able to look at Colette’s handwritten stories within his infrequent notes in the margin and claim that this is proof of their collaboration. Watching this with Haiku, she was reminded of a similar story from the 1970s where Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her distinctive big eyed paintings so convincingly that a judge asked them both to paint for him under observation to prove who was the real artist. Marriage laws tend to side with the husband, essentially giving him ownership of his wife and, by default, her creative results. Which is frustrating, to say the least, and I am so pleased that Colette managed to successfully publish under her own name later in life.

Image from Colette showing Willy as the toast of the Paris salon

But while the headline plot from Colette is the trouble that she had getting credit for her writing, I was much more interested in the romantic plot and the dynamics of their marriage. Because, until Colette’s fight for professional acknowledgement drove the final nail into the coffin of their relationship, they seemed to have found a balance that sort of worked for them. They had an uneven and not entirely satisfactory open relationship, sure, but a Time biography suggested that it was Willy who finally asked for a divorce and that Colette had been happy in their non-monogamous partnership. They clearly also married initially for love – Colette even jokes that she didn’t bring a dowry. The respect and admiration that they felt for each other was visible in how Knightley and West played the characters, with the Guardian review praising their performances for suggesting that ‘Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter.’ As with so much in life, it was much more complicated than that!

I do believe that they loved each other. I believed that they had a real partnership, not just a marriage of convenience or financial need. And they were sweet together! Willy referring to himself as a ‘pot-bellied stove’ when offering to warm her up in bed really made me smile and there seemed to be genuine companionship in much of their interactions and ease with each other. Having a 10-month old baby who seems to have been snotty for weeks now, there was definitely a note of familiarity in Colette noticing a stain on her dress as they arrived at a party, scratching it and joyfully declaring that it was just toothpaste, and I loved how Willy soon gave up trying to change how Colette dressed and let her wear what made her comfortable.

But despite this easy companionship and mutual respect, we still spent much of the film declaring what an awful husband Willy was! The problem comes because their relationship had such a clear gender imbalance. Willy is in charge; he is the man of the house and Colette is only able to do what she does because he allows it. Yes, he appeared to respect her but their public presence particularly did not demonstrate that Willy thought of them as equals. He would regularly order her around, demanding that they left parties when he wanted to leave, and would lock her up to ‘encourage’ her to write. And he can get away with anything he wants because that’s what men do. Once again, husbands owned their wives and could do what they wanted with them.

This also extended to Willy’s infidelities and sexual indiscretions. ‘Flirtation is what one does!’ he tells her. And later, he tells Colette that she needn’t feel threatened by him seeing a sex worker as ‘she’s no rival…it’s what gentlemen do.’ Willy benefits from the patriarchal society and doesn’t do anything to change it. And there was so much opportunity to be fairer!

Image from Colette showing Willy with Colette and another woman on his knees

As I briefly mentioned in the post on Up in the Air, I am in an open marriage myself but the arrangement that Willy and Colette have is a type of non-monogamous relationship that personally isn’t for me. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different but I’m not a fan of the One Penis Policy. This type of open relationship is not uncommon but I can’t view an agreement where the man can sleep with as many women as they want but the woman isn’t allowed to sleep with an equivalent number of men as anything other than misogynist. The woman can fuck other women, which is OK because the man gets to remain the man of the house? Because sex with women is of less value than sex with men? Because men only get jealous of other men, like they’re a new patriarch trying to disrupt the pack? Because fucking a penis infers a level of ownership that can’t be shared? Sorry, it’s not for me. And it destroys any chance that Willy had of being a progressive husband – even if he does happily let his wife fuck as many women as she wants.

And Colette is very aware of the inequality of their marriage. She asks about opening their marriage completely but Willy refuses. And, of course, this does create resentment. It does foster and maintain inequality. As Missy tells her, ‘it’s a long leash he keeps you on, but it is a leash.’

The inequality in their non-monogamous marriage is further exacerbated because Willy keeps secrets and has affairs. He doesn’t tell her who he’s fucking, which in my opinion still constitutes cheating even in an open relationship. Of course, Colette fights back against these slights, but not because she wanted him to stop; she just wanted him to keep her in the loop: ‘I want to be part of things. I don’t want to be a little wife at home.’ I completely understand this attitude. It’s not the open marriage that it’s the problem; it’s the lies. Like the One Penis Policy, they maintain a hierarchy and power dynamic that places Willy in charge and Colette as his inferior. Who wouldn’t fight back against that sort of arrangement?

Image from Colette showing Colette looking fabulous with a lady in her underwear in the background

Particularly as Colette is clearly a bisexual woman with a high sex drive, and I love how this was celebrated on screen. ‘The wild days have just begun,’ she announces when presented to Parisian society and Willy’s peers joke that he’ll have to settle down now that he’s married. She asks for sex and it is Willy who turns her down as he’s too tired; she goes after what and who she wants and is happy to make the first move; and, of course, Claudine’s adventures that make them so famous are Colette’s adventure, her school days and her memories. It is almost the ultimate expression of the patriarchy that Willy thought he could control her just because he married her!

Another aspect of this film that I really loved seeing presented so well was the handling of gender. I would be fascinated to know how this film might have looked if it had been released 10 or even just 5 years ago. Take Missy, for example – at one stage, Colette makes a very deliberate effort to correct Willy when he calls him ‘she,’ implying that Missy had changed his pronouns to a more masculine form of he/his. It was so seamlessly handled, without fuss or really much acknowledgement, that it could easily have been missed, proving to any doubters that changing pronouns is not a big deal and doesn’t need to be a major plot point. ‘Words are either masculine or feminine.’ Colette tells Willy, ‘There’s no word for Missy.’ And that’s all that needed to be said. After all, Missy’s gender isn’t why Colette falls for her, and the scandal surrounding their relationship stems from the fact that they are supposedly two women kissing on stage, rather than Missy’s gender flexibility.

Image from Colette showing Colette and Missy embracing on stage

But I was most pleased to see this small detail in the film as they didn’t need to include it. The real Missy, Mathilde de Morny, was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes at a time when this was scandalous enough, but there is no evidence to suggest she was trans. Rumour, yes, but no facts. So I liked that the writers chose to highlight this pronoun change as it must have been a deliberate choice, and one that might not have been made in the past.

Another deliberate choice that also made me happy when I heard it was Missy’s acknowledgement that it was his financial privilege and status that gave him the freedom to dress how he wanted and act as he did. Even though he created a scandal, his life wasn’t at risk; he was able to survive. When looking back at figures in history who have been trailblazers for sexuality or who have challenged accepted gender norms, it tends to be the stories of those with this kind of privilege that make history – to misuse a quote from the film, ‘it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history’ – and it made the story of Colette and Missy so much more powerful that this was acknowledged.

Image from Colette, showing Missy in a dinner jacket

So what and who is Colette? The Guardian felt that it was an ‘empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux;’ the Telegraph described her as an ‘ahead-of-her-time queer icon with a complex attitude to her own femininity.’

For me, it is a story of progress and is almost a prolonged coming of age movie. Who says we are fully formed once leave home or fall in love, as traditional coming of age films would suggest? Colette needed Willy to find herself; she needed his encouragement to write in the first place, his sexing up of her writing to help her find her style, his freedom and (admittedly salacious) encouragement to fuck around with the women in Paris to discover what she wanted. ‘You’re the only woman I could ever love,’ he tells her. ‘And you’re at your most brilliant with me.’ Their marriage was a disaster, but it was the catalyst that Gaby, the young country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle, needed to become Colette, the pioneer and trendsetter. Colette is a ‘nuanced tale of outgrowing: not just a childish and bullying spouse, but an age of acquiescence.’ Yes, she was scandalous but she helped to change how women are perceived and what they were allowed to do – creatively and personally.

After all, ‘since when has scandal been a bad thing?’

Next week – Pride and Prejudice

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Jennifer’s Body

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama
KEY ACTORS: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.2
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 44%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Are the cast fuckable? It’s Megan Fox as a hot cheerleader. Of course, the cast is fuckable! She’s deliberately sexy but it works!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test – Needy and Jennifer talk about a demonic ritual if nothing else!
✔️ I’ve only watched it once but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. The sex is, well, inexperienced and I have no desire to literally eat men…
✔️ It is sex positive, however. Both main characters have sex – the hot one and the nerdy one – and nothing bad happens to them because they’ve had sex! It also showed realistic first/early sexual experiences with obvious condom use that wasn’t really played for laughs, beyond the simple intrinsic hilarity of comfortable, consenting sex!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review contains discussions of trauma, sexual assault and rape]

Jennifer’s Body poster, showing Megan Fox in a short cheerleader skirt sat in front of a blackboard that says ‘Hell yes!’

I’m starting to think I need to change the subtitle of this blog – it is a blog exploring movie sex and movie love but it is increasingly becoming a blog where I rant about the patriarchy and feminism. Because I’m starting to realise quite how much movies reflect the attitudes of the time that they were made, and because they are produced in an undeniably male dominated industry, they seem to act as magnifiers for all the niggling problems that grate against women. And horror movies and their obsession with sex and women make it even worse!

So here we are again – week two of my Halloween specials, and I’m writing about another film that was critically panned when it was released and yet hindsight has revealed a film that is not only good but was significantly ahead of its time. It’s just that it wasn’t made for men or for the male gaze (regardless of what the marketing may suggest) and so was completely misunderstood.

Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenagers who had been friends since they were children – Jennifer is hot and mean; Needy (I don’t know why she’s called that if not as an over obvious label) is bookish and quiet, but they’re friends. They go to see a band in a dive bar and the venue burns down in mysterious circumstances. In the chaos, Jennifer gets a lift with the band, supposedly for safety but actually because they had picked her out for a violent demonic ritual. Unfortunately for them, Jennifer isn’t a virgin as they’d expected so the ritual backfires, turning her into a demon succubus who feeds on other teenage boys. After she kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy fights back, killing Jennifer and ending up in a secure mental health facility.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Chip, dressed for the prom and in a dirty pool. Jennifer has blood all around her mouth after taking a bite from Chip’s neck

Doing my research for this film actually made me really angry – there was just too much sexism! Together, it had a cumulative effect of not only infuriating me but also damaging the careers of some very talented women. Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, straight after she won the Academy Award for writing Juno; and it stars Megan Fox in her first role after Transformers. It should have been an escalating point for both of their careers but it wasn’t. It’s critical failure meant that Cody moved to writing for TV until 2018’s Tully and Megan Fox hasn’t yet done anything really impactful (Sorry to Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles fans!).

What upset me most was that they were both affected by different but equally cliched patriarchal bullshit and neither did anything that would have been more than a blip in a male colleague’s career. Cody made a poorly received film, sure, but she was subsequently brought down by the fact that women aren’t allowed to fail. Our actions not only speak for all women and our failures risk closing doors for other women in our industry, but we are certainly not allowed second chances. As Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 last year, there was a disquieting tone to the reviews – ‘as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant.’ And it proved to be true.

Megan Fox’s story is more troubling but no less typical. After publicly criticising the work environment on the sets of the Transformers films, she was fired by Michael Bay who also published a letter from some of his film crew that ripped her to pieces in an unnecessarily personal and vitriolic fashion. Should she have criticised Bay so publicly? Probably not. But did she deserve such an obvious and sadly successful attempt to blacklist and discredit her? Absolutely not! Calling her ‘everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar”’ is not an objective and fair appraisal; it’s mean and cruel and reeks of that attitude shared by angry men who have been slighted by a woman who they feel is beneath them.

Which, sadly but not unexpectedly, brings us around to the #MeToo movement. Frederick Blichert writing for Vice expresses hope that ‘a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today’ after the methods Harvey Weinstein used to blacklist women who displeased him have been revealed and themselves discredited. But it’s not just the treatment of Megan Fox that hasn’t aged well now – Jennifer’s Body as a whole is a movie that should be looked at completely differently now we are in a post-#MeToo world.

An image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer in a prom dress, covered in blood, floating above a dirty pool

Because the entire plot revolves around the question of what happened to Jennifer in that van with the band. Except we don’t really need to ask what happened; the implications are clear. Just as in Practical Magic, the supernatural is used as a metaphor or substitute for emotions or experiences that are too powerful or difficult to explain – rather than being assaulted or raped by the band, Jennifer is ritually sacrificed. She then processes her trauma by acting out a ‘cathartic fantasy…using her victimised, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.’ In a dark, twisted way, it’s kind of empowering! These men have used her body for their own gain and yet it is her sexuality that allows her to take revenge, using that body to ‘entrap and feed on those who once objectified her.’ Jennifer really is a feminist revenge hero!

And there are two particularly interesting aspects of her revenge that I wanted to mention. Firstly, her actual attackers almost get away with it, and they definitely benefit from the ritual, enjoying huge success until Needy wreaks her own bloody revenge. Instead, it is the people around Jennifer who suffer. Considering how rarely abusers and rapists are convicted, this feels right somehow. And despite occurring in a supernatural movie, it feels real. Constance Grady at Vox felt that this reads as a ‘dark bit of satire’ now when we consider how many men have had abusive behaviour revealed during #MeToo but whose career has not suffered long term. Trauma and abuse cause a lot of collateral damage around the people who have been abused, but too often there is devastatingly little impact on the abuser. In fact, many recent reviews mention the election of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and how it sent a message to teenage girls that ‘whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not supernatural; that is real.

But more interestingly and more importantly, Jennifer’s Body is a slasher film that doesn’t punish its female characters for having sex. Spoilers for next week’s post on Halloween: this is not common in horror films! Characters losing their virginity is usually the same as signing a death warrant, but Jennifer is saved by her sexual experience…in a dark, twisted way. If she were a virgin, she would have died when she was sacrificed but her sexuality gave her the power to fight back. And once again, that’s kind of empowering. No wonder the patriarchy and all those male critics didn’t enjoy this film!

But they’d be almost forgiven for expecting Jennifer’s Body to be a ‘normal’ horror film with sexy hot girls getting naked and being killed, because that’s exactly how it was marketed. And I’m afraid that I was one of the many, many people who were put off by the aggressively sexual promotion – I’m wary of slasher films as I don’t like jump scares and I didn’t need to see another overly sexualised film where another naked girl is killed, so I didn’t bother.

Promo image from Jennifer's Body showing Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit, lying down

It has been suggested that the marketing choices were deliberate and were supposed to draw in a male audience: ‘Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?’ It feels like the much trailed kiss between Jennifer and Needy was only there to appeal to this demographic as it doesn’t quite fit with my interpretation of the rest of the film and felt unnecessary. Megan Fox is hot and is ‘on display for men to pay to look at’ but she’s knowingly hot, knowingly sexy. She’s exaggerating and playing up to the cheerleader stereotype so that her ugliness (in massive inverted commas as she’s still gorgeous) when she’s hungry is more pronounced. She even jokes about looking normal when she’s supposed to look rough. But there seemed no reason for the kiss, except to exaggerate Jennifer’s sexual predator status…and to appeal to the male gaze.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy at school. Jennifer has no make up on and looks relatively plain

But if that was the tactic, it seriously backfired! Critics and horny viewers didn’t get it. It wasn’t sexy enough to be hot, wasn’t funny enough to be humorous, wasn’t scary enough to be horror, and wasn’t trashy enough to be trash!

Watching it now, I can’t believe that no one realised at the time that it was satire – hilarious, cutting, subversive satire that turned all those movie tropes in on themselves. And it is not a fantasy for men! Roger Ebert describes it as Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless’ as if straight boys want ‘demonic cheerleaders’ in the same way straight girls want vampires. The more I read about how badly the film was received initially, the more I wanted to scream ‘it wasn’t made for you!’

Because Jennifer’s Body is about being a teenage girl. It’s about how cruel we can be to each other and how we cling to toxic friendships way beyond their natural life because so much else is changing. Jennifer was an arsehole to Needy long before she became a demon. In fact, her possession didn’t really change her personality that much – just her focus. But it took that kind of dramatic crisis to end their friendship. There were no demonic possessions at my school but, wow, there was drama! We really hurt each other and were mean and screamed at each other. And we’d run home and cry at how much someone had changed and how we couldn’t believe the way they were acting, and then we’d make up the next day and start again. Being a teenager sucks!

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy in front of their school lockers. Jennifer is pulling a strand of Needy’s hair

And Jennifer’s Body is about how there is no perfect victim – something that is too often forgotten. Jennifer was a bitch and went to that bar intending on hooking up with the band, but that definitely doesn’t mean that she deserved what happened to her. As was so eloquently put in that Refinery29 article, ‘Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?’

Megan Fox got in. She knew exactly what she was doing, vamping up her sex appeal and exaggerating her plastic and bouncy character, as it made her vulnerability during her attack more shocking. She did it so well that I actually felt quite sorry for her when Needy finally killed her. And she knew how important it was to be that imperfect victim, that real person who does bad things but still did not deserve her fate: ‘If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls….It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be.’ Fox told The View and quoted in the New York Times. ‘I worry that’s totally lost.’

And it was totally lost. ‘2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie’ Vox claimed, and I am so pleased that it is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, appearing on lists of top horror movies directed by women and being reclaimed as a ‘forgotten feminist classic.’

It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for these women’s voices to be heard…

Next week: Halloween

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Practical Magic

YEAR: 1998
DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne
KEY ACTORS: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 21%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is indeed rewatchable, but it took me a long time to get there!
✔️ With so few significant male roles, I’d worry if this failed the Bechdel Test but luckily it passes with ease!
✔️ Considering this film has a predominantly female cast, and I’m quite underwhelmed by the men on screen, and I’m straight, this perhaps shouldn’t get a mark from me but even I can’t deny that the cast are fuckable. 1990s were a successful time for them both and arguably their hotness peak so yes, fuckable!
✔️ I almost didn’t give it a mark for inspiring fantasies but I couldn’t ignore that kiss. Sally and her husband’s kiss to Faith Hill’s famous song, This Kiss, is everything.
❌ But despite much soul searching as I love the feminism of this film, I can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. ‘Since when is being a slut a crime in this family?’ Gillian asks but she does suffer. She is the more promiscuous sister who is shown to party with millions of friends and makes jokes about locking up husbands on her return, and she ends up in an abusive relationship. She suffers for her sexuality, and it saddens me that this is the case because it is otherwise a hugely positive and feminist movie.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.98). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review discusses bereavement, abusive relationships, effects of trauma]

Practical Magic poster showing Bullock and Kidman looking out of the poster above a cluster of lit candles

I remember when I first watched Practical Magic. I was fourteen and at a sleepover. We’d put aside our usual action films and chosen a selection of horror movies from Blockbuster instead, in aide of Halloween. This was the first film that we watched and it terrified us (me) so much that we couldn’t watch anymore and had to return to Die Hard again to recover. Witches, possession, reincarnation; it was too much. This used to be my benchmark for years – I couldn’t watch Practical Magic and that was only a 12! How could I watch any real horror film?

And I didn’t watch it again for years. Until last year, in fact, when all of the 20th anniversary articles made me realise that it may have just been too much for a fourteen year old and I should try it again. Honestly, it is even more terrifying now but in a completely different way, and I loved it. I loved it!

Practical Magic is a film about the Owens family, a matriarchal line of powerful witches who live under a powerful curse – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman dies young. Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock) are sisters whose father dies because of the curse and whose mother then dies of a broken heart. They move in with their spinster aunts who are more open with their witchcraft, providing curses and love potions to needy villagers. Despite being so afraid and trying everything to avoid love, Sally does get married and has two daughters, before her husband is killed. Gillian, choosing pleasure, runs away and falls for a dark enigmatic man, Jimmy, who ends up abusing her. While trying to escape, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill him, raise him from the dead, and then kill him again. Jimmy ends up haunting them, possessing Gillian and it takes an entire coven of women to rescue her. (This summary is much too simplistic – go watch it!)

Gillian dancing next to a pool surrounded by admiring men

Practical Magic terrified me so much more watching it as an adult because it is essentially a story about how dangerous love can be – dangerous if you fall for the right guy as he could die and leave you heartbroken, and dangerous if you fall for the wrong guy as he could abuse and hurt you. Love is pain and despite the message that it is possible to survive, there is so much hurt in this movie that it terrified me.

I am in a hugely fortunate position as I have never been in an abusive relationship so I cannot personally relate to Gillian’s experience and I have not been significantly bereaved so I don’t know Sally’s pain, but I could imagine it; I could feel it. I was sobbing within the first 25 minutes of the film as Sally wailed that ‘he died because I loved him too much.’ That’s the fear. That’s the big one. I definitely have an optimistic outlook but it is based on a knowledge, or even perhaps a morbid expectation, that it could all come crashing down at any time. In the back of my mind, meeting and marrying the man of my dreams only means that I’ll be even more destroyed should he die; a potential pain that I would never experience if I were alone. It sometimes seems the only way to balance out the extreme joy and happiness I have experienced, so Sally’s bereavement because of her love projected my ultimate fear onto the big screen.

Of the two sisters, I am definitely Sally. Gillian ran headlong into love, wanting to feel so much that it was worth any pain, but Sally was more realistic and tries to avoid the risk. She even uses logic to wish for a man so perfect that he couldn’t exist because ‘if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.’ Cold logic, it’s the best way to proceed!

Sally looking into a candle flame

Magic is used so powerfully in this film to signify unavoidable emotional experiences. Sally tried and tried to avoid falling in love but she couldn’t. Yes, she was pushed towards her husband by an incantation from her aunts but once she’d open her heart to it, their love was real. Devastatingly, that’s why her husband was killed. In the film, it’s magic; in real life, is the force behind love any less powerful?

This use of magic as a metaphor for emotion is even more powerful if Gillian’s possession is viewed as a metaphor for trauma. She has fought to leave an abusive and harmful relationship but she cannot escape, even when her abuser is dead. She is literally haunted by her relationship, literally haunted by her past. And when Jimmy possesses her, she acts and speaks and feels in ways that aren’t how she would usually behave – they’re remnants of Jimmy, they’re her trauma made real. She’s exhausted by it; she’s almost destroyed by it. And she needs her people to save her. She needs her family and sister and community to help her break free, long after she has physically left her relationship. And, as Refuge discussed with Stylist magazine last year, ‘it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous…Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.”’ It’s exaggerated, it’s magical and supernatural, but it feels so real.

Gillian and Sally performing a resurrection spell on dead Jimmy

Practical Magic handles the issue of Gillian’s abuse with a lightness that could be misinterpreted as disinterest, but I think actually creates a much more realistic story. Buzzfeed felt that this is why critics didn’t like it when it was first released, and I think it’s 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating might be the lowest I’ve posted yet: ‘Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it.’ But women have a long history of laughing off abusive behaviour from partners, both to minimise it to themselves and to others, and to protect themselves from recrimination. Gillian jokes that she drugs Jimmy so she could get some sleep at night but we all understand that this strongly hints that he doesn’t accept her refusal or believes in consent and suggests that he has also sexually abused her. Her quiet ‘he’s strong. So much stronger than me’ at Sally’s concerning questioning broke my heart. But the film doesn’t overdo it. We know what’s happening and it’s enough to see the effects. It’s even perhaps more powerful for that – we believe her without seeing.

Gillian looking resignedly forward, trying to brush off Jimmy’s attention as he tries to kiss her neck

Despite these difficult and heartbreaking themes, Practical Magic ends up being a really life-affirming and heartwarming film – and not because Sally gets a happy ever after. That plot line with her too-perfect-to-be-real police officer is almost an annoying distraction, although Buzzfeed’s review did correctly note that it’s the light and dark next to each other that enhance both: ‘The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.

But, for me, the true happy ending is between the women themselves and between the witches and the community. As Aunt Frances, played by the fabulous Stockard Channing, states, ‘we need a full coven.’ Gillian is saved by her bond with Sally but it took everyone to put her in a position to do that. And that includes the community that shunned them. I loved this idea that finally ‘coming out,’ as one character dubs it, is what brings them together. Distrust and division are perpetuated with secrecy and insincerity, and although there was definitely a risk in revealing themselves, it is a great feminist message that women don’t need to fight or fear each other and are much more powerful together.

Which, of course, brings me on to the fact that they’re witches. As my first Halloween themed post in a feminist movie blog, it had to be witches!

Gif of Gillian and Sally dresses as witches

Witches are the ultimate feminist hero and embody everything that the patriarchy fears: ‘Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy…[they] embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom’ historian Kristin J Sollee explained to The Guardian in 2017 to promote her book on this subject. Most witch traditions seem to stem from groups of women who didn’t need men, who defied the patriarchy and so must be evil and untrustworthy. Only someone in league with the devil could survive without a man! Buffering the Vampire Slayer, my favourite Buffy podcast, tells the story of the Alewives – women who brewed ale and were financially independent because of this. They were important members of the community, didn’t need men to survive…and traditionally made the ale in large cauldrons while wearing pointed black hats, suggesting they were an early source of the idea of witches. And, even more terrifying to the patriarchy, these groups of women can’t be controlled, which in some countries is still ‘enough to sentence her to death.’ And so they can be blamed for anything, for everything.

Practical Magic presents an interesting perspective on the story of witches as they sit on the border between horror and fantasy. Some witches are evil and terrifying and come from darkness – crones, hags etc – whereas some witches are good and fluffy and light – Sabrina, Wizadora etc – but Sally and Gillian are neither and both. They’re friendly and sunny with the ‘thickest, most lush movie hair’ yet seen and grow herbs to make lotions, and yet are capable of murder and reincarnation and both know deep, deep darkness. I mentioned Sady Doyle’s book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Motherslast week and she writes about how witches have always lived ‘on the razor’s edge between benevolence and malevolence, horror and fairytale,’ which is why they are so terrifying – they are unknowable. Are they helping or harming? Are they good or bad?

Except, of course, that there is one eternal truth of witches: ‘they kill men who harm women.’

Next week: Jennifer’s Body

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Gif from GIPHY.com. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

What women want

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
Not sex positive – I suspect this was supposed to be sex positive – or at least vaguely feminist – but it hasn’t aged well at all and the male gaze is too infuriating for it to count.
I don’t particularly want to watch this again – I fear that it will only age further…
It didn’t inspire any fantasies – it’s more of a romance than a sexual film, but it’s certainly not a romantic trope that I’d like to be involved in: misogynist undermines professional woman, almost destroying her career, and yet she falls in love with him anyway!?
I don’t want to fuck Mel Gibson. Helen Hunt, maybe, but not enough for a point…
✔️ Somehow this does pass the Bechdel test, but I’m giving the mark very begrudgingly – women talk to each other about something other than men but they rarely both have names and are almost always interrupted by men. Urgh.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

[Content warning: this contains brief mentions of sexual assault and discusses potential non-consensual sex]

A poster for What Women Want showing Mel Gibson smiling forward with Helen Hunt looking passed him

I wish I could remember how What Women Want came across in 2001 when it was released. Eighteen years is a long time but this film feels like a million miles from current acceptability and it seems inconceivable that it was made this century, let alone that it became the second highest grossing romantic comedy of all time! When I added this film to my list, I wrote ‘#MeToo’ next to it as I feel this should be shown to anyone who doubts how difficult men can make life for women – professionally, socially, romantically, publicly. It’s essentially a public information video!

Because Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall is awful. Was he seen as the hero he thinks he is back in 2001 or did we notice how fucking awful he is? Luckily it seems that reviews at the time were similarly appalled, with Salon stating the film ‘does nothing but condescend’ women and should be seen as ‘an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history,’ but I was still shocked at how far it went. In the opening scene and subsequent long walk to his office, Nick is condescending, patronising and dismissive. He literally sexually assaults a women, ‘accidentally’ grabbing her breasts, he harasses another, and men are shown to be in awe of his prowess. Less than 15 minutes in and I already feel like I need a shower…

This really bothers me as I don’t think Nick was intended to be such a monumental twat and the Guardian review at the time even felt that ‘from the outset, it is made crystal clear that he is supposed to be lovable.’ He isn’t an evil figure who is shown the error of his ways; he’s a normal, pretty cool guy who becomes heroic – and gets the girl.

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

My dislike of this film can be summed up by a quote from Nick’s therapist: ‘If you know what women want, you can rule.’ Not help them, not make their lives easier, not act in a more empathetic and understanding fashion towards his equals; he could rule. Urgh, really?

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the writers of this film don’t actually like women. They certainly aren’t doing us any favours once they ‘reveal’ what we’re thinking – it’s all stereotypes or weak attempts at humour. Women are shown to be constantly calorie counting, anxious or rude. They also seem to be either secret lesbians or attracted to Gibson’s character, further emphasising his value. Oh, and don’t forget that his secretaries have no thoughts at all. Hahahaha, how funny to belittle women in the work place. (This film made me really angry!)

It made me so angry because the depiction of professional women is exactly what we have spent decades trying to undo. It is the Patriarchy writ large, emphasising that women just aren’t as good as men professionally. In 2001. I may be accused of missing the joke…but the redemptive arc did nothing to fix this particular discrepancy.

Whether their thoughts demonstrated frustration or suppressed intelligence, the humour and plot devices serve to undermine the female characters rather than uplift them. Nick’s assistant silently screams in her thoughts about how over qualified she is to be getting him coffee, but he doesn’t promote her – he encourages her to move her boyfriend to the USA from Israel. He gives Judy Greer’s file clerk a better job only when she decides to kill herself. He never appears to change his general opinion of women in the work place, just gains more respect for a select few and gossips with a few more. The fact that he eventually realised how good Darcy is at her job remains the exception rather than his new rule.

Helen Hunt is holding a poster board and looking over at Mel Gibson

Before this realisation, Helen Hunt’s character, Darcy, is particularly poorly served and I hate that she is used to confirm all the awful stereotypes that professional women face. She is literally hired because she is a woman, not because she is the best candidate, and her ‘competition’ (Nick) is told this. What a way to undermine her before she starts! She is also described as a ‘bitch on wheels,’ a very lazy criticism of a professional woman, despite clearly being charming and empathetic once we meet her. I couldn’t help but worry that hearing her anxious and self-depreciating thoughts undermines her further, revealing her insecurities. Does it make her more real and a better role model to know how much she worries about being taken seriously? Or is it fuel to the misogynistic fire that claims women aren’t fit for such professional responsibilities?

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

It is also such a cliche of gender inequality that men repeat exactly what their female colleagues have said and are given all the credit, and here Nick goes further by stealing their ideas before they’ve even said them out loud. I would have loved to have seen him hear a good idea and encourage the thinker to speak up more, using the fact that his voice will be heard to promote them like a proper ally, even if this had to happen after his epiphany. He literally never used his gift for anything but selfish pursuits.

This is never more clear than when he uses his psychic ability during sex, and using these abilities does raise questions about consent. In two situations, Nick hears thoughts that contradict what the women say out loud – Marisa Tomei’s character Lola thinks regret about turning him down and Darcy pleads in her head for him to ask her inside after a date. I ranted in the Fifty Shades post about how we have to trust the words spoken to us, not whatever clues may be drawn from body language, but does this apply to thoughts? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question but it is an interesting one. Do we ever think in our best interests? I know I let my thoughts and desires run free in directions that I’d never want in reality and would hate to think these are being used to discount my well considered spoken words. I’d go as far as to say that we have as much control over our thoughts as we do our bodily responses (i.e. not very much!) so I’m inclined to feel that Nick is unfairly manipulating the situation in his favour by using these women’s thoughts as an excuse to act. Is it consensual when he has this kind of power?

It feels particularly invasive for Lola as her overheard fears match exactly what happens, despite still desiring him in her thoughts. She turns him down initially as she’s worried about getting hurt, fears he uses to make himself seem like a more sensitive man, and then he forgets and discards her after they fuck, just as she knew he would! Yet she’s portrayed as a crazy girl. We shouldn’t be criticised for having ‘crazy’ thoughts – it’s our words and actions that count and Lola’s were ignored. She tried to protect herself and she was overruled.

This rant is getting away from me so I have just one more thing to say about hearing women’s thoughts during sex. Isn’t it interesting that when he listens and responds to what Lola wants, the sex is incredible. He is even declared a sex god! Can you think of better proof that women should speak up more and men should listen more?

I think it’s safe to say that this film has not aged well! But a recent article by the AV film club suggests that it feels so upsetting now as Nick’s redemption arc is too familiar to that of Mel Gibson himself following his own #MeToo disgrace. Gibson went from anti-Semitic drunk whose career appeared to be over after recordings of violent threats to his girlfriend were discovered to being welcomed back with open arms following his nomination for the Academy Award for best director in 2016 for Hacksaw Ridge. He is described as a ‘blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow.’ The bar for Nick’s redemption is hilariously low – he forgets his daughter’s prom but is a hero for being called to rescue her there, he costs Darcy her job but is a good man worthy of her love for admitting to lying and getting her job back – and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. As with these men ‘recovering’ from accusations of sexual assault, their penance is rarely enough.

So what do women want? We just want to be heard.

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.